I am grieving. As I write, the chainsaws are reducing my magnificent Manchurian pear tree, all 13 metres of it, to a pile of woodchips. I have lived in this house for more than 16 years, and every spring this tree has filled my front garden and the sky with such beauty - its arching branches heavy with white blossom. Each autumn its leaves of scarlet and gold were a joy to behold, and as they fell they laid such glorious patterns on the green lawn. And then in the summer it offered dense shade (possibly too dense as far as my nearby tomatoes were concerned).
But its vigorous growth interfered with power lines, and after every annual trim it grew back in a very short time. And then the first storm came and a huge branch split from the trunk and crashed across the footpath. Fortunately, no one was passing at the time. I tried, I tried. We took off some smaller branches to reduce weight. I contemplated a chain around the trunk; the arborist shook his head and pointed to another rotting branch higher in the tree. And then we had our severe late summer storms and another branch came down. Once again I was lucky that there was not a car parked underneath the tree or, horror of horrors, someone walking past. I didn't want to push my luck. The decision was made and today is the day. And it really hurts to watch.
I need to allow myself a suitable time to grieve before planting another tree. It will be something smaller. I do wonder whether trees of this size are really suitable for suburban blocks. I have another Manchurian pear, currently a much smaller tree, along the side boundary of the house. So far it has been reprieved - it has dropped a small branch, but it fell inside my property. I am wondering about a persimmon or a mulberry or an olive or another almond.
In the back garden the crab-apples are still holding plenty of glorious fruit. Every day another few handfuls drop onto the terracotta; the birds have a feast and cover the paving with their fruity droppings and half-eaten leftovers. But I cannot get too annoyed; I gaze with intense pleasure at these shapely trees with the copper and golden balls among the green foliage. I shall make a small compote of crab-apples using some vincotto and maybe a spoonful of Annie Smithers' crab-apple jelly, and serve it with grilled duck.
At this time of the year Annie visits for dinner and a sleepover. The excuse is picking fruit to make crab-apple jelly, which she does, but we also have a marvellous evening of talk. She brought me some of her own pickled cornichons, which we enjoyed with another gift: slices of wonderful salami made by Patrizia Simone, given to me at a reunion of the band of travellers who went to Sicily with Patrizia and her husband, George.
Back to trees (or shrubs) - the lemon-scented verbena is a delight. It has been in full flower for weeks and weeks now and I have some long arching sprays in a vase to scent my study. Heavy pruning was necessary to allow early autumn sunshine to reach the purple- and white-striped listada eggplant planted beneath. Just two leaves infused in boiling water make a delicious tea, and every year I dry a large quantity to store and enjoy throughout the tree's leafless months. My gardener found a lime-scented verbena and I'm still getting to know it.
The changing of the seasons is almost upon us. The broad beans and leeks are already growing well. The carrots have germinated and I am deciding where to try, once again, to grow small cauliflowers. I am yet to grow a successful cauliflower and it is one of my favourite vegetables. Cauliflower gets bad press. I rarely boil it unless I'm having a retro week and planning to make cauliflower cheese. Usually it goes into a heavy-bottomed frying pan (cut into small pieces) with a good olive oil, possibly onion, and more often sliced garlic, and then I turn it and turn it until it is a little bit browned and a little bit crunchy.
I then add plenty of chopped parsley. One can, of course, get fancier with Indian spices and turmeric.
The basil bushes should have been picked by now and hopefully lots of pesto made. I find that by March the plants are starting to be spindly and straggly and the leaves are no longer lush and flavoursome.
My cucumbers and snow peas were hugely successful. I must have harvested more than 50 Lebanese cucumbers. They are crunchy and delicious fresh, but given the size of the crop, and the fact that they all ripen within a week or two, I have pickled some following the recipe (given to me by my sister) for bread and butter pickled zucchini on page 1069 in The Cook's Companion (2nd edition). Cucumbers work just as well, and these pickles make a great sandwich with cold roast beef or goat's cheese, the bread spread with freshly made pesto.
Until next time.
PORTRAIT **ARMELLE HABIB
This article is from the April 2011 issue of Australian Gourmet Traveller.